Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Creating the Cover Art for Dream of the Antique Dealer's Daughter by Robin Smith-Johnson

A few years ago we got the good news that my poet sister-in-law, Robin Smith-Johnson, was going to have a book published! It would be a collection of her poems. Everyone in my husband’s family is a writer so being published is a goal for all of them. We were very excited and happy that Robin would have her hard work compensated and a dream fulfilled!

I was humbled and honored when Robin approached me to produce the cover art for her book. I am trained in the fine arts of painting, drawing, and printmaking but I make my living now producing mostly small 3-dimensional works. I have done some invitations, brochures, and other graphic design projects over the years but never something like a book jacket. Still, I wanted very much to be a part of this exciting event.

Robin didn't specify what kind of cover she envisioned. She told me the title of her book, Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter, and I instantly pictured a pencil drawing.  It was Wendell and Moo, Robin’s parents, sitting in front of the antique shop the Smiths ran for years, The Incredible Barn. I imagined myself drawing the scene depicted in an old black and white photo we had in our collection, it depicts the last day of the shop being open and evokes a melancholy feeling. I knew I could produce this drawing and do a good job. I said yes to Robin.

She asked if I wanted to read the title poem. I admit, sheepishly, I was distracted at the time and I said it wasn't necessary, I thought I had all I needed just from the title! Later, I reflected further on the question and realized it was foolish not to read the poem so I emailed her and said of course, yes, please send me the poem.

Well. The title poem is not about the kind of dream I had assumed. It was not “dreamy” and nostalgic. It was powerful, intense, and dark. The dream was more like a nightmare. My heart skidded to a lurching stop. I immediately realized I was completely wrong about the art I had planned to produce. I realized I should read the whole book and start from scratch.

Robin sent me her manuscript. I stayed home, I put soft Brazilian jazz from the 60s on repeat and read all the poems. The collection Robin assembled is a journey through her life. Observations about emotions, life situations, are met with a clear and steady eye. She does not shy from the dark things, she appreciates beauty as well. The two extremes play off each other in many of the poems.

As I read, a new image slowly formed in my mind. And to my dismay, I realized it was emerging in a medium I was not expert in. I knew the cover had to be mixed media collage, I could already see it! I read the poems again and this time I wrote down all the keywords that represented the essence of the book to me. I wanted the artwork to be specific with imagery but also abstract, like the poems, to represent a dream state anchored by real objects.

The next thing I did was research mixed media collage techniques. I looked at tutorials online and downloaded e-books. I talked with textile and mixed media artists in the building where I have my studio. I bought books, I borrowed magazines. I studied.

Then I started collecting materials and images. I borrowed a photo my husband snapped of a mannequin and made that the focus. I printed her on fabric. I had an old atlas with a map of Moldova which I copied and painted a wash over. I scanned a pastel that Wendell had made of the seashore. I used fabrics from my vast stash, including some vintage calicoes from my mother’s collection. I used real sand and shells I had collected on Cape Cod beaches. I added magazine clippings, a drawing of books my mom had made, lace, and more. I assembled the whole collage with acrylic medium on vellum and canvas paper then I drew on it and sewed and embroidered right through the whole thing by hand.

didn't get it right the first time, it took several tries. But I knew when the last shell was glued on that I had echoed, at least for myself, the feeling I had when reading Robin’s powerful poems. I wanted a person picking up Robin’s book to get a feeling from the cover about what was inside, I wanted the cover to evoke an overall feeling that accurately represented the contents. A close reading would reveal the correlation between certain poems, individual lines of poetry, to the various symbols used in the cover image, like a little treasure hunt, a puzzle solved.

Now that it’s published and out in the world I feel nervous and excited. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. I hope I was successful. I want to be worthy of the trust Robin placed in me to create the face with which her book would greet the world. And I hope you pick up a copy of the book, it’s an amazing collection that won’t fail to leave you moved and thinking about life, about both the darkness and the light.